Dessye, Ethiopia — Antigovernment guerrillas overrun the garrison town of Lalibela in Wollo Province, capturing 10 foreigners. For six weeks, the guerrillas march or drive the foreigners through rebel-held areas to show them the effects of drought and war before they are released in neighboring Sudan. Rebel forces ambush a convoy of trucks traveling along the main highway between the regional capitals of Dessye and Alamata. Eight vehicles are burned, including one transporting relief agency food. It is destroyed, the rebels later explain, because it was carrying government license plates.
Members of a French medical team running a children's health center at Kobo suddenly find themselves alone in their compound for the night. All the government officials have taken refuge at the nearby military camp when word came through that rebel forces might attack the town.
These incidents are recent illustrations of the regional civil wars that have plagued Ethiopia for years, if not decades. With at least three out of roughly half a dozen guerrilla movements dominating much of the countryside in the northern and western parts, the incidents also illustrate some of the problems facing international relief efforts in the famine zones.
Some Western aid officials say the Ethiopian military government has little or no access to as many as 5 million people in the contested regions, which are reportedly also among the worst affected by the famine. According to George Galloway, director of the British voluntary agency, War on Want, ``Starvation is a reality'' for 2 million people in Eritrea alone.
The Addis Ababa regime prefers to describe the fighting in Eritrea, Tigre, Wollo, and other provinces as ``the security situation'' rather than a series of full-fledged civil conflicts. ``These attacks are just the work of scattered groups of bandits or terrorists,'' a senior official in Addis Ababa insisted. ``We can reach any village we want.''
Yet, based on the observations of Western relief workers and journalists who over the past few years have toured the areas held by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and other rebel organizations, such claims seem highly exaggerated.
The guerrillas, who run their own schools, hospitals, literacy programs, and relief societies, hold only several towns in the extreme northwestern part of Eritrea or Tessenai near the western border with Sudan. But they do control numerous rural settlements and villages.
The Ethiopian government, which is supported by the Soviet Union and other East-bloc countries, is spending roughly half its budget in efforts to crush the rebels, who are demanding regional autonomy, or, as in the case of the EPLF, outright independence. Despite repeated operations, including the well-publicized Red Star offensive in 1982 and 1983, the Ethiopian government has failed to break the deadlock. For the moment, neither side seems capable of militarily bringing the other to heel.
In areas where the guerrillas are active, the government can move only in armed convoys or is restricted to towns guarded by military garrisons and local militia. Government food distribution centers, for example, are located in towns with a strong military presence.
In view of the famine emergency, the regime is particularly keen to ensure that foreign journalists and other observers witness as little as possible of the wars. When the TPLF attacked the convoy north of Dessye last November, the authorities closed the road to visiting reporters to prevent them from seeing the burned-out vehicles.
The reddish-brown hills and straggly villages within sight of Korem, a major relief camp in Wollo Province, are also considered front-line zones. Foreign relief workers are forbidden to venture beyond the boundaries of the camp.
According to the latest United Nations assessment (Dec. 12), some 7.7 million people are thought to be in need of food aid. After its worst harvest in four years, Ethiopia is suffering from a food shortfall of more than 5 million metric tons. Relief officials estimate that 1.2 million tons of cereals, 100,000 tons of supplementary food, and 30,000 tons of edible oil will be required over the next 12 months from donor governments and voluntary agencies.
If received (some 800,000 tons have yet to be pledged), this aid will ease the plight of a large portion of the starving population. Nevertheless, Ethiopia's civil wars are severely hindering if not preventing the proper distribution of emergency aid in the drought-affected areas.
More important, the fighting is preventing the implementation of long-term measures (reforestation, improved agricultural methods, etc.) designed to deal with the root causes of the famine. The present aid is regarded as only temporary ``bandage relief,'' permitting drought victims to survive but doing little to stave off future disasters.
And as if drought were not enough, some observers claim anti-insurgent forces using napalm and cluster bombs are destroying crops and livestock.
``The infrastructure enabling people to grow food to survive natural calamities has been destroyed by a military scorched-earth strategy,'' said Chris Cartter of Grassroots International, a Boston-based relief agency, on his return from a 10-day tour of Tigre last month. ``We believe the government is denying these people assistance in an attempt to starve them out and is covering up the situation.''
The overwhelming bulk of international aid dispatched to Ethiopia is being done so under the auspices of the Addis Ababa authorities.
But various relief sources have warned that barely 10 percent of the food required by the population in guerrilla zones is actually coming through. A certain amount of food known to be reaching the interior is the result of ``trickle-through'' from the government feeding centers, with the rest brought in from Sudan by the Eritrean and Tigrean relief societies or foreign voluntary agencies.
The extent of this drastic food shortage coupled with the effects of war is partially illustrated by the growing exodus of refugees into Sudan, which is itself suffering from drought and an already heavy burden of exiles from Chad, Uganda, and Ethiopia.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva maintains that some 50,000 Eritreans and Tigreans have crossed over since early November. Rebel claims that at least double this number will soon enter Sudan are not regarded by relief officials as ``unrealistic.''
Over the past few months, the military regime has consistently turned down proposals by the rebels for cease-fires or safe passage for outside relief. There is little doubt that both the EPLF and the TPLF are intent on obtaining as much political gain as possible. In the past, they too have shown considerable intransigence toward negotiating. Yet most international relief officials admit that only some sort of truce between the warring parties can facilitate a fairer distribution of food.
With the government controlling the food, it is virtually impossible for foreign agencies to ensure a proper, and nonpartisan, aid program. Some independent relief organizations as well as certain UN officials, who have asked to remain anonymous, strongly believe that the regime of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam is not only regularly diverting international food aid to its troops and militia, but also using famine relief as a political weapon.
They say that farmers who have gone to government food centers claim they were beaten and turned back empty-handed for not having peasant association membership cards. All farmers in government-controlled areas are organized into peasant associations that double as local militias.
``Some people end up getting food, others go to the back of the line. There are beatings and harassment. Some don't get any food at all and are told to go away,'' said Mr. Cartter, whose organization is providing direct, behind-the-lines relief assistance and who had already warned of ``impending disaster'' from drought last year.
The government has repeatedly denied such accusations, pointing out that it is the guerrillas who have been destroying food trucks and otherwise hampering its relief efforts.
Officials of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Committee (RRC) interviewed both recently and during previous visits by this correspondent have often expressed deep and sincere concern for the plight of their people. The RRC also seems to be handling the situation remarkably well, given its logistical, and political, constraints.
But there seems little doubt that, as in so many other countries suffering from civil strife, the people living in so-called unofficial areas are caught between a rock and a hard place: In many respects, many of these drought victims have become little more than political pawns in the struggle between the Addis Ababa regime and the rebels.
Last month, the government blamed Western countries for providing too little aid, too late. At the same time, however, it refuses to acknowledge that its civil wars are a serious impediment to present relief efforts. Similarly, not only does the Organization of African Unity dismiss the conflicts in Eritrea and Tigre as it has done for years, claiming that they are internal affairs, but also the UN has done little to encourage a peaceful settlement. In the meantime, some outside aid organizers are exploring more effective ways of providing assistance.
The French medical organization, M'edecins sans Fronti`eres, for example, is running health missions on both sides. World Vision, an American Protestant agency, is hoping to open up a new food-distribution center every six weeks in government locations more accessible to people in guerrilla zones.
Other agencies and several Western governments are operating with the Ethiopians but have quietly begun to furnish relief to Sudan, knowing that it will find its way inside. But the majority of Western countries and even relief agencies still prefer to channel most if not all their food aid through Addis Ababa.
Little attention is paid to the desperate appeals of the guerrilla relief societies, for fear of upsetting relations with the Ethiopian authorities.
Also, most Western countries and agencies appear unwilling to bring the sort of pressure to bear on the Mengistu regime that could induce a more humanitarian distribution of aid.